The world is full of idiots, and someone needs to point it out to them or they will never know.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Underbelly: Overrated

Australian television is a bit of a mixed bag lately. Try as we might, Australians can't seem to create original drama that is as stunning as the stuff our cousins in the US and UK produce. I heard a lot of great things about Underbelly when it premiered in 2008, and I was intrigued by the concept. Something based on a true story, that was dark and adult. A show that featured ongoing story arcs and strong characters - at least, that's what Channel 9 and people I pretend to listen to led me to believe. I never saw the first series, or the second, but I decided to give Underbelly: The Golden Mile a go.

Now that it's over, I think it's fair to say it was a big pile of shit.

Well, okay, maybe it wasn't *quite* that bad, but hear me out. Again, I haven't seen the first two series, so I'm only commenting on the third, but The Golden Mile was some of the trashiest television I've watched in a long time. Why? Let's start with the most important part of any work of fiction: the characters.

To begin with, nearly all of the characters in Underbelly were poorly written and overtly "Aussie". If I didn't know better, I'd swear the show was written by an American. Nearly every second word is "mate" and there's so many barbecues in the show it makes us look like we don't have indoor cooking in this country. Not to mention some the dialogue was just plain idiotic, like when a visibly upset girl was comforted by her mother with the words, "I shoulda had an abortion." What.

The show also featured far too many characters. Now, I'm not saying shows with a large cast don't work - the first seasons of Lost and Heroes were very successful in the ratings, and they had a huge cast - but more often than not, you want to focus on a protagonist or group of protagonists, and then maybe have a supporting cast. For example:
  • The Simpsons (the main family - Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie)
  • 24 (Jack Bauer)
  • House (Greg House)
  • Supernatural (Sam and Dean)
  • Doctor Who (The Doctor)
  • Friends (the six friends)
  • Scrubs (JD, and - to a lesser extent - Turk, Carla and Elliot)
  • Desperate Housewives (those four soulless, irritating, vapid whores)
"Aha!" I hear you say. "Underbelly did feature a protagonist - Kim!" Kim Hollingsworth certainly had her own story, but for the first two thirds of the season she was really nothing more than a pair of tits, wasn't she? You may be thinking of John Ibrahim next, and, indeed, the first episode did seem to paint him as the protagonist, but after George Freeman died, he didn't really do much until the final episode. Other episodes seemed to focus on entirely new protagonists - the blonde police officer and Doc (the guy that murdered DK). Having this many protagonists made the show frustrating to watch, as it seemed like we were following one character's story (John's), only to switch to another's (Kim's) then to another's (the blonde girl who blew the whistle) and then back again (to Kim). This is not good storytelling, people!

The rest of the characters were crap too. Not because they were poorly acted, but just because they were unlikeable. Yeah, I know the show is about crime (I'm not that stupid), but criminals rarely think of themselves as the bad guys, you know. I recently finished season 8 of 24, where Jack goes rouge and murders several Russian diplomats, and even plans to assassinate the Russian president. To a civilian, Jack would seem like a terrorist, but although the audience knows what Jack is doing is wrong, we also know why he's doing it, and we side with him. Underbelly had none of this, it was too busy flashing breasts at us to explain why characters were murderers, drug dealers or corrupt police officers. And, no, Channel 9, "they did it for the money" is not sufficient justification.

At times it seemed like the characters in Underbelly were based on this guy

And let's talk about the nudity for a moment. Now, I like seeing naked women as much as any other red-blooded male, but Underbelly has so much nudity it's ridiculous, at times even gratuitous. One scene took place on a nudist beach for no other reason than so we could see Kim's (admittedly quite nice) arse. Another featured Kim and her sister at home with their tits hanging out, waiting for pizza. Now, I'd like all the ladies reading this to consider the following question:

If you're sitting around nearly naked and someone arrives at the door, delivering food, do you:
A. ...put on a gown, accept the food and pay the man?
B. the door just enough so that you can pay the man and accept the food?
C. ...invite the man into your apartment, accept the food, then dance around naked in front of him?

If you answered C, congratulations! You're hired as a writer for Channel 9! I think at least one of the writers has some talent, because the episode that featured the most nudity was ironically called "Women in Uniform." Clever.

My biggest complaint, though, is the friggin' narrator. There's nothing inherently wrong with narrators in fiction, however, they're often used as a shortcut for exposition, rather than giving insights into a character (so, JD in Scrubs is a good use of a narrator, whereas Mary Alice in Desperate Housewives is not). Underbelly uses its narrator so much I wanted to strangle the bitch by the end of the series. Two examples stood out as particularly bad:
  • In the second episode, Kim comes home after her first night as a prostitute. She's visibly shaken by the experience, and has a shower. It could have been one of the few decent moments of the series, but the producers ruined it by having the narrator say, "Kim had to ask herself - had she just sold her soul for the rent?" Arrgh! A director does NOT need to use a narrator, if the emotions being experienced by the characters are clear to the audience! You shouldn't need to bludgeon the audience with exposition like that!
  • In the penultimate episode, one character remarks, "Don't ever trust a Muslim", prompting shocked looks from the other characters around the table. I had no idea why they were upset, but then the narrator helpfully explained to the audience, "He didn't know it, but everyone else in the room was a Muslim." Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a blatant example of bad storytelling being covered up with narration. We shouldn't need to be TOLD why a remark was offensive, we should know enough about the characters so that we can interpret remarks like this as offensive. Jesus.
Underbelly's biggest gimmick - the fact that it's all based on a true story - is probably also its biggest drawback. The fact that the events of the show was spread over a decade meant that there wasn't a consistent feel to the storytelling. Characters like John Ibrahim were pushed to the sidelines for most of the series, but this is not because of the writing, but because John didn't DO anything in the first half of the nineties! Looking back at the series, I see three primary storylines that unfolded:
  1. Kim's story, from waitress to hooker to policewoman
  2. John's story, from nobody to a powerful force in King's Cross
  3. The story of the Royal Commission
Again, I don't think having multiple stories going on can't work (Summer Heights High, anyone?), but Channel 9 tried to do far too much, and as a result, the show ended up feeling unbalanced. If they'd just stuck with one of the three, instead of all of them, it would have been a much tighter show, with less padding.

I think, overall, Underbelly wasn't terrible, but it wasn't very good, either. The trouble seems to be that we're so starved for decent Australian content in this country we'll treat a few chunks of dog food as a five-star steak when it comes to television (which is probably why Kath & Kim became popular). I've compared Underbelly a lot to overseas shows, but even compared to local shows like early episodes of City Homicide, all of Summer Heights High, or even the second season of The Librarians, Underbelly just ends up being nothing more than softcore pornography. Avoid.

© 2010 by The Free Man

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Attempt at Reading Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight"

Let it never be said that I dismiss things without first giving them a fair go. I watched How I Met Your Mother for three seasons before deciding it was a poorer man's Friends. Despite a lot of criticism, I went and saw Baz Luhrmann's Australia, and actually enjoyed it. I even gave Ugly Betty a go when it first came on. But there is one franchise that even I have refused to touch, and that's the gargantuan Twilight one.

Spanning four books (five, if you count the new one) and three movies (so far), Twilight has become so popular it's become uncool to like it. Well, brace yourself, dear reader, for I'm about to give it a go.

I stole my sister's copy of the book from her room, and just looking at the cover it's not a good start. She has the film tie-in edition, with Robert Pattinson on the cover. Any franchise that made this untalented hack popular must clearly be evil. Ahem, sorry. So, I get to the acknowledgements and I skim through it, and see Meyer thanks her husband, Pancho. Seriously? Pancho? I've got this image of a seedy Mexican guy, and I'm intrigued whether this character will appear in the book. Probably not, or else the book might be interesting - no! Bad Free Man! I'm supposed to be keeping an open mind here!

Pictured: Stephenie Meyer's Husband

Further down the acknowledgements, Meyer thanks her editor for making the book "better than it started out." Given the extremely varied reviews I've heard, I wonder how bad the original manuscript must have been.

On the next page we have a contents page, and boy does this annoy me. Why on earth do we need a contents page in a NOVEL?! Harry Potter doesn't have any. None of my Douglas Adams, John Marsden, Matthew Reilly or Michael Crichton books have them. Heck, the Goosebumps books didn't have contents pages! What sane person picks up a book, looks at the contents and thinks, "Hmm, chapter 18, The Hunt, that sounds exciting, let's start on page 328"? In fact, the only novel in my room that features a contents page is Andy Griffith's The Day My Bum Went Psycho, but that probably says more about me than anything.

So, we start with a preface, and the narrator is talking about how they're about to be killed by the hunter. I turn the page, and we're at chapter one. Great. Another story that starts at the most dramatic moment possible, then the rest is told in flashback. I am so sick of this cliche. I've seen it in Battlestar Galactica, V, Flashforward, Star Trek, Lost (obviously), Supernatural, Batman Begins Iron Man and the video game Uncharted 2 to name a few. It's irritating and insulting (less so with Lost, since the flashbacks are a key part of the narrative) because it means executives think we'll only watch/read/play something if there's a really dramatic beginning. Look, Meyer, we have your book. You don't need to start with a dumb flashforward, we're not going to put it down. To be fair, the book was published back in 2005, when it wasn't as much of a cliche as it is now. I'll let this one slide for now, Meyer.

So. Chapter 1. 'First Sight'. Christ this is exhausting. This is the actual opening paragraph:
"My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka."Immediately I'm bored. You see the problem with this paragraph? It's just so... bland. Imagine if I wrote this:
"My mother drove me to the shops with the radio on. It was hot in Brisbane. The sky was blue. I was wearing my favourite green T-shirt; it was a gesture of defiance. My phone was in my pocket."

The only difference is that Meyer is a lot wordier than me, and that's not a good thing. Shakespeare once said, "Brevity is the soul of wit", and this basically means DON'T WASTE MY TIME WITH WORDY EXPOSITION! Here's my paragraph again, re-written:
"Once again, Mum had selected the worst possible radio station. There were only so many times I could hear the hits of the eighties, nineties and now before I killed someone. It was bad enough that it was a scorching day in Brisbane, let alone that I was perfectly okay to catch the bus to the shops. But no, mum insisted on driving me."
You see how much more vibrant the text is when it's not just simple exposition? There's humour, personality, backstory. And I get across essentially the same thing in roughly the same amount of words.

Gah. This is painful. Next paragraph is, if possible, even worse:
"In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That was the year I finally put my foot down; these past three summers, my dad, Charlie, vacationed with me in California for two weeks instead."

Where do I begin? To begin with, is it really necessary that we're given the exact geographic location? A town name is fine, a state okay, but the PENINSULA? Then we're told that it rains a lot in Forks. Twice. First, we're told it's cloudy a lot, then we're told it rains a lot. Just one of these would have been enough, you know. What was I just saying about not wasting my time with wordy exposition? Oh, and let's not forget, our yet-unnamed narrator tells us that it rains "on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America." MORE wordy exposition? Meyer, you're an American author, the book was first published in the States, I'm pretty sure "United States" or just "America" would have been sufficient for your readers. You don't see me calling Australia "The Commonwealth of Australia" in my stories.

Next our narrator begins to whine about her father. Wow. A girl with daddy issues. Meyer, I take back all my criticism, you are the most original and revolutionary writer since Dickens. Apparently, our narrator recently put her foot down and forced her dad to holiday with her in California. Straight away this makes me dislike the protagonist. Why? Well, it paints an image of our hero being a whiny, spoiled teenage girl, who is not relatable at all. Except to other whiny, spoiled, teenage girls I suppose.

I can't go on, we're only 154 words in and I can already feel a vein pulsing on my temple. To summarise: Twilight has lost me on its very first page, thanks to redundant and wordy exposition, unlikable characters and cliched plot-lines/literary devices. Once again, I'd like to stress we're only 154 words in. Unbelievable.

© 2010 by The Free Man